“A Fish Stinks from the Head”

I recently completed two very different planning sessions in two different parts of the country. While the geography doesn’t matter, the results do.

The first company (Company A) scheduled a two-day, off-site meeting at retreat center set in the woods. There was no internet access, we cooked our own food, and there was no alcohol (the business owner is a non-drinker). Since we were “down South” we enjoyed a nice December campfire. The owner included an interesting cross-section of his team consisting of all senior management, sales management, and a cross section of sales people. And lots of family members. The group was large and I was afraid it was going to be an unwieldy gang, given the diversity of the group and levels of responsibility. I was not optimistic about our chances of executing the plan.

Company A is an old company, mid-sized (over $50 million in revenue) with a lot of long-term employees and an inherent resistance to change. Their business model is not a whole lot different than it was 50 years ago: Drive around, look for customers, and drop in. They are successful, but not nearly as successful as they could be.

The second client (Company B) scheduled two one-day meetings, at the company offices outside of Chicago, with the senior team only. Although I prefer a two-day, off-site approach for the annual meeting, given the small group, I thought it would be a slam-dunk and that we may not even need the second day.

Company B is a much younger company, relatively small ($10 million in revenue) with no family members. They are in a rapidly changing industry. As a business, their job is to promote change in their customers’ organizations. And they are good at it. But their growth has stagnated, and they did not have a plan to accelerate their growth. They had never done any strategic or operational planning.

Both CEOs said they were committed to change. And both groups created and published a One-Page Strategic and Operational Plan.

It always amazes me how wrong I can be! In the first 90 days, Company A has already completed their quarterly goals (Rocks) in the first 60 days. This included changing the roles of a significant number of the meeting participants AND removing a few of the participants or their direct reports from the company. Company B, on the other hand, has not acted (yet) on any of their Rocks and has not even committed to the change they need. It begs the question, “Why is Company A executing on the plan while Company B is still in the starting gate?”

Well, as an old turnaround consultant friend of mine used to say, “John, a fish stinks from the head!” The first time he said that, I must of given him a look, because he followed up with “And, John, you’re the fish!” It’s pretty clear that in the two examples here, the CEO of Company A did an excellent job of selecting his team, creating the case for changes, and then becoming laser-focused on executing the change. Our CEO for Company B intellectually knows he has a need to change, but he has not committed himself to all of the tough decisions that must be made.

There is no question that change is difficult. But if you are going to get your organization to the next level, it starts with the CEO. Remember, “A fish stinks from the head.”